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  • My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student
  • Barbara Tobolowsky (bio)
Rebekah Nathan. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005. 208 pp. Paper: $24.00. ISBN: 0-8014-4397-0.

Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym), an anthropology professor, and her faculty colleagues often discussed the quality of their students and found them wanting. Were the students really cheating more and reading less than students in the past? Were they less motivated, but feeling more entitled? On occasion, Nathan audited courses and realized she heard student conversations that were not available to her as a professor; more significantly, she was surprised by what she heard. Did other administrators and faculty really know what students needed or wanted? Nathan decided to "go native" and experience her university as a first-year student so that she would be able to answer these questions. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student chronicles her experience.

She took a sabbatical from her professional role at her home institution, AnyU, and applied for admission there as a student, using her high school transcripts. She was accepted to begin in fall 2003. Though over age 50, she decided to lead the life of a more traditional student: living in a residence hall, opting for the campus meal plan, attending her campus's version of orientation, taking a full load of classes, and forfeiting her faculty parking sticker.

The seven chapters of this book focus on different aspects of her experience: her introduction to the university, dorm life, the sense of community and diversity, the international student perspective, the academic experience, the ramifications of competing time demands, and her lessons from the year. The afterword provides some insight into her ethical struggles about presenting herself as a student to her fellow students. This discomfort led her to include as data only those conversations with students who knew her true identity and information obtained from public discourse. Specifically, Nathan used space in four women's restrooms allocated for anonymous questions and answers as well as residents' door decorations. (Her own door was not one of these spaces.)

She supplemented these observations with 40 formal interviews which she conducted with American and international students, two focus groups (one with first-years and another with seniors), and observations of students in and out of the residence hall and classrooms. For all the interviews, she introduced herself as a "researcher," not as an undercover professor. In addition to the broader study, Nathan conducted several mini-studies including: (a) interviewing international students who provided insight into their experience at AnyU, and (b) monitoring seating choices in student dining areas (i.e., who dined with whom in terms of ethnicity and gender).

Nathan begins the book chronologically sharing her initial experiences at orientation and moving into a residence hall for sophomores and juniors. Significantly, many of her findings are based on her interactions with students in her residence hall, reflecting a college experience rather than a first-year experience. Nathan does not acknowledge this distinction. Though at times the narrative seems stuck in minutiae (e.g., how people decorated their doors), Nathan also captures her sense of surprise as an outsider entering this foreign world.

After she settled into her dorm room, the rest of the book offers an overview of Nathan's experience, focusing on broader themes and the findings from her mini-studies. One of the most interesting findings is connected to the notion of community. Nathan relates how students' lives and the institutional structure, by their very nature, undercut the existence of an institutional community. She begins her argument by recognizing that students are busy. Using activity diaries collected from 10 students, Nathan discovered that they spent little time in course preparation. Rather, they worked from 6 to 25 hours a week and participated in professional clubs and volunteer work to lay the groundwork for their careers. Almost without exception, these students did not maintain memberships in organizations based on personal interests, even though there were lots of organizations from which to choose. When students chose not to participate in an event or organization...


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pp. 421-422
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